10 May 2014

My trail running gadgets

Let's talk about gadgets for trail running. What do I use? Which ones I think that are essential and I use during my trail running sessions?

I keep it Simple and efficient. I am running for the joy of running in the nature. I do not want to be distracted by useless gadgets or to try to break my record every time I go out for a run. I am quite conservative. I do not use any of the new wearable devices. No wrist band, no heart monitor, no steps counter and not even a GPS receiver on my usual trails.

Mobile Phone

This is the only gadget that I always take with me! A simple "dumb-phone" with black and white display. I often run alone on the hills and mountains, and through woods. So it is a good idea to have a reliable phone that I can use in case of an emergency.

Why use a dumb-phone in the smart-phone era? Here is why:
  • It does what is supposed to do very well: make calls!
  • Very small and light
  • Solid and hard to break
  • Great battery life - I have no worries, I charge it once a week.
  • The black and white display works very well outdoors and in sunshine.
  • It has clock function... No need to wear a watch, although I often wear one.
  • It has a torch light.
  • Very cheap. 


The trouble is that it is harder and harder to find this type of phones. It looks like they are not made anymore. They should last for a long time, however I managed to wreck several of them with my washing machine... Being so small and light, it happened several times that I forgot to take it out of the pocket and washed it with my running clothes. This spring I had difficulties to find a new phone like this.

After this last phone will break I may switch to a smart(er)phone. I just wish I can find something small, light, cheap and reliable, ideally water proof with a display that can be used outdoors in the sunshine... I may wish too much though...

Head Lamp

I tend to avoid running in the dark. My worst ankle twist incident happened on a trail in the dark... However in winter when the day is short, there is not much choice but run through the darkness. If there is snow, then running in the dark is really fun! Even a small head lamp can provide enough light when it is reflected by the snow around. However, if there is no snow, one needs a powerful head-lamp. It took me a while to find a lightweight and powerful headlamp. 


Finally I found one that I really like (the Fenix HL 30) and here is why:
  • Powerful light that is nicely distributed
  • It works with a pair of AA batteries. Most chargers charge batteries in pairs; I hate all those headlamps that use 3 batteries!
  • Lightweight
  • Waterproof
  • It has 4 light intensity steps.
  • It also has a red light LED. Useful to signal my presence when running along roads used by cars.
I use Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. They work great and have no issues in the cold!

Proper outdoors GPS receiver

I carry a GPS receiver only when I am running on new trails and on mountains where I do not go too often. In that cases I am carrying a small back-pack anyway so I have room for the GPS device. I carry it for two reasons:
  • To record the track. I really love to load new tracks in Google Earth and analyse them in detail.
  • For safety. For example, in foggy conditions above the treeline, it can be very useful to help finding the way.

I use a proper GPS device, an older Garmin 60CSx device. I really love this device and here is why:
  • Very good reception. I lost the signal only in deep and narrow canyons.
  • Very accurate position. I compared it with an "outdoor" smart-phone or GPS watches. The 60CSx works way better!
  • I have free maps for it, with altitude contour lines - very useful on the mountains
  • Works with two AA batteries that last at least for a whole day - I use Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. They work great!
  • Transreflective display - works great in the sunshine. It may not have vibrant colors and the best contrast, but it works great in all conditions.
  • Waterproof. I can use it in the rain without any worries.
  • Records tracks on a micro SD card.
  • I can load new tracks and routes on it

Photo Camera

Another gadget that I carry sometimes with me is a photo camera. Like with the GPS, I carry it especially when I am running on new trails and in places where I do not get too often.
After some researching I found a good camera that I really like. A waterproof Nikon AW 110. It makes quite good photos, clearly better than any smart phone can take. It has a larger sensor and optical zoom, something no smart phone has. Moreover, it is cheaper than a top of the line smartphone with good image quality.


Here is why I like it:
  • Small and light
  • Waterproof, shockproof and even freeze-proof
  • Good image quality for its class
  • Good battery life - especially that I turned off the GPS feature.
  • Has a neck strap
  • Thin - I can keep it under the clothes whil erunning to avoid it dangling on each step
  • Cheaper, tougher and more ergonomic than a smartphone with a good camera
  • No lens cap, no external moving parts
Here are some photos taken with this camera:

Gadgets that I do not use:

Steps counter, Wrist band, Foot-pod

I find them useless. I wear a proper watch if I need/want. Why should I count my steps... Anyway, Most days I do more than the recommended 10,000 steps...

Heart Monitor. 

I do not use one anymore, but a heart mnitor can be very useful. I used one at the beginning, when I became more serious about running. In the meanwhile I learned more about my body and I feel that I do not need one anymore. I also find the chest heart belt uncomfortable.

There is a new generation of heart-monitor watches that have the heart rate sensor on the wrist - these watches do not need a chest heart belt. I may consider getting one of these when this technology gets more mature and becomes more mainstream.

GPS Watch

As I said, I use a proper GPS device when I really need it. I have never owned a GPS watch, although I was close to buying one.  I know well the trails where I do my daily runs and I use this simple map to calculate the distances. I also find annoying the fact that one has to wait for about one minute to get the initial satellite fix before to start running.

iPod, music players

I never feel any need to listen to music when I run. I run only in nature and I find it so enjoyable to listen to the surrounding sounds: bird songs, wind and water streams and so on. It is also safer not to listen to music, especially when running in the city or along roads used by cars. Also in the forest, I would rather hear in time if there is a bear or other big animal making noise around...

Action video camera

I can see why one would want to record fast action sports, but I think that it is silly to use them when running. First of all there is no way to wear it so it would not vibrate and shake like mad with each step. Secondly, who would want to watch the boring and shaky footage? I just take photos along the way if there is something interesting.
I had such a camera, a GoPro Hero. I used it a couple of times when skiing. It was OK, but then it takes so much time to edit the footage. So I got rid of it... there are better ways to use my time. Not to mention that these cameras are not cool anymore: Every second skier or biker has one... ;-)